My students say they’re all individuals,” says Susan Silbey, “but those in my course on power reveal how they are also products of social influence, of the market, and of advertising.

“I look around the room and 60 percent of them have on the same shoes and jeans. And they’re all wearing earphones and carrying cell phones.

“I tell them, ‘You’re all doing exactly the same thing but you think you’re a bundle of unique desires.’ My course is to show them that power is the ability to get people to do what you want intentionally.”

One group who has big power, she tells them, are advertisers — like Nike, Levi, or iPod — who are highly effective at putting the pow in pow-er.

Susan Silbey, professor of sociology and anthropology, who is head of the anthropology department at MIT, teaches a course on power that focuses on interpersonal power, organizational power, and global power. She tells students that there are multiple kinds of power — manipulation, persuasion, physical or psychic force, enacting authority through legitimate position, rewards, threats, knowledge, or love.

“Students learn that power is not a possession. It is not the property of any person or thing,” she says. “It’s a relationship that is achieved by mobilizing resources.”


You want someone to do something. What are your choices?

Some people exercise power through physical force, Silbey says. “In ancient Rome or medieval Europe, disputes were settled by combat. Physical force enabled some to be more powerful. But in the contemporary world, most power is not based on force. It’s based on verbal acuity.”

Persuasion, she says, is among the most successful forms of power, because it is not experienced negatively, or as overwhelming, but often as collaborative, appealing to a person’s reason.

Universities specialize in creating power that derives from knowledge, she says. This power also works by deference. “You go to a doctor or a lawyer and then you follow their advice, because they have special expertise.”

Enacting a legitimate role is also a way of exercising power, but so too is threatening force which can be found in the same relationship. This is the power of a policeman or a parent. “You do what they ask because they occupy a position that has certain prerogatives; you defer because you recognize the legitimacy of the position. Or, you do what they ask because they may threaten coercion, and there may be a punishment. Parents use this method often.”

Perhaps a better alternative, Silbey says, is for the parent to ask the child to do something out of love — which is yet another form of power but which is rare, especially outside families. “That’s the power John F. Kennedy had. Gandhi. Joan of Arc. Martin Luther King. And Christ. Charismatic leaders enjoy the love of their followers. The leader says I’m asking you to do this for me, and because you believe them to be a special, magical person, you do what they ask.”


Does everyone have power?

“Most people exercise power in some situations but not in others. And, for many people, unfortunately, they exercise power in very few situations,” she says.

A sometimes observed reaction to power is resistance.

Silbey tells of a woman whose son was in the hospital. She thought he wasn’t getting good care and wanted him transferred, but the hospital was unresponsive.

“One day, the woman spotted her son’s medical chart hanging at the end of the bed. She knew the papers were important, so she simply put the medical charts in her shopping bag, walked out of the hospital, called an ambulance, and had him transferred. That’s resistance.”

For it to be effective, though, Silbey says, the resisting person has to understand what makes the organization work. “This woman had to know that papers are the engine that moves the hospital machinery. Resistance is not successful if you don’t know what are the important levers into which you can throw a wrench.”

People misuse power every day, Silbey says. “Sometimes misuse of power gets punished; most times, I believe, it does not. Enron, for example, misused its authority, the people at the top as well as the consulting accountants. A few went to jail, one died, companies went out of business. So one might say there was punishment, but certainly not equally and not proportionately to the losses many suffered. But misuse of power doesn’t usually get stopped, resisted, or punished.”

In all power transactions, the person with fewer resources — the more likely to be powerless in the relationship — still has at least one option to deny power to the one with greater resources. How?

“To die. Then the person who wants something from the other can’t get what they want. Some slaves were willing to die rather than promote the world of the master. Sometimes just lying down and refusing to act can overwhelm what are otherwise more powerful actors. That’s what passive resistance is all about.”